Chaos and Innovation

The word ‘chaos’ is used in the Cynefin framework to describe a domain where the agents of a system have no constraints. While the chaotic domain can be a bad place to be, in the right circumstances it can be used to fuel innovation. Liz Keogh has previously posted about isolated idea generation and Cognitive Edge have developed a pattern called Ritual Dissent in order to perform a ‘shallow dive’ into chaos. In this post I’d like to talk about how hack days can be used to do this, provided certain precautions are taken.

On an average working day, organisational structures determine who works with who in order to get something done. A feature is requested, it’s built and tested and then it moves into production. Perhaps agile methods are used to guide this process and generate a fast feedback loop between the users and the team developing the product. Despite this it’s still possible for underlying assumptions about the user to form. For example, ‘the user knows what they want’ and ‘the user knows what is and isn’t possible’. In reality, an average user has much less technical knowledge than someone developing a product. Until they see something they may not realise that it could benefit them.

To aid users, there must be some sort of innovation which happens outside of the main feedback cycle so that options that were not understood by the user can be injected. Cynefin tells us that innovation is born in the chaotic domain which requires a lack of constraints between the agents. It is also a dangerous place to be so we must ensure that we work in a safe to fail way. I’ve seen ‘hack days’ work really well for this.

A ‘hack day’ or ‘hackathon’ is a period of time in which employees are allowed to test out their own ideas. The important thing here is that the usual constraints around the way people work must be taken away.

Allow anyone to work with anyone else:

  • People that don’t normally work together may have different ideas about how things should work. Debate can spark new ideas.
  • Bringing people from different departments, sectors or organisations together can create a collaborative environment where multiple benefits can be realised from the same ‘hack’.

Infinity Works recently hosted a hack day which brought together people from Westfield Health and NHS Digital. You can read more about it in this post by Adrian Hesketh. Brett Jackson, a product owner at NHS Digital, also covered it in this post on LinkedIn.

Don’t specify certain goals

  • Goals create constraints and can limit the output of a hack day – there can’t be any high value discoveries in places you didn’t think to look.
  • The variation in ‘hacks’ produced when people are left to come up with absolutely anything can be inspiring.

The output of a recent hack day at a client’s office ranged from using Slack to issue Rancher commands via a mobile device to using Bluetooth LE to allow seamless login between multiple devices.

Don’t expect working solutions

  • It may turn out that someone’s idea for a hack turned out to be very hard or even impossible to accomplish. This isn’t a failure! It’s only taken a day to find out that it may require a lot of effort to move in this direction.
  • Demos are ideal for taking to users to see if an idea holds real value. If the demo doesn’t get juices flowing, then there hasn’t been a waste of effort to find out.

Two weeks ago I took part in a hack day with the theme of authentication. Over the day we came up with a series of demos which appeared to show us logging in to an application using things such as a mobile device, proximity sensors and bio-metrics including fingerprint and facial recognition. We used a USB hub to mock a fingerprint reader and there were no back-end services involved.

We are now using the demos as probes to investigate what would benefit different groups of users the most. After validating what will bring the highest value, we can move on to building a real product.

I feel that organisations that want to produce innovative solutions need to make room for techniques that take a ‘shallow dive into chaos’. It might seem scary allowing employees to build something without first defining requirements… but what if one of them has a killer idea and produces something no-one else had even imagined?

Header image from: http://www.chaoscope.org/gallery.htm
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